Egypt: A No Win situation

Following in the wake of recent developments in Tunisia there are now massive protests in Egypt.  At first the numbers were small and easily dismissed by the government, but since the Muslim Brotherhood has gotten involved their ranks have swelled.  While there is no reason, so far, to suggest that Mubarak’s regime is in imminent danger, it is likely the Muslim Brotherhood would fill any vacuum its demise would create.  Unfortunately, even though Mubarak’s reign, with its corruption and oppression, is hardly an ideal one, there is no guarantee that a new government under the Muslim Brotherhood would be any better.

Historically, and especially in the Middle East, when an authoritarian regime is toppled it is rare that a new government becomes democratic, let alone enlightened.  Egypt itself serves as an example; when Nasser and his officers overthrew the British puppet regime in the ‘50s all promises of economic development and freedom were eventually put aside to be replaced by a de-facto police state.  Ba’athist revolutions in Syria, and Iraq, Colonel Gaddafi rise to power in Libya, and the Iranian Revolution all had the same effect; the new rulers ended up being just as bad, and often worse, than their predecessors.  Given this poor track record, it is hard to think the Muslim Brotherhood would be the exception.

Many would point out that most of the revolutions in the Middle East were by Arab Nationalists, and Socialists, rather than Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood; the argument being that the former regimes become inherently corrupt while the Islamists usually have the support of the people.  This argument is false.  While the best-known Islamic Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, was popular at first, most Iranians currently long for more political freedom and economic opportunity.

It should be noted that other experiments in Islamic governments in the region are not known for their successes:  Saudi Arabia is more oppressive to its people than Syria, or Iran, and Hezbollah’s inclusion in the Lebanese government has not led to more peace or stability for the country.  I am not arguing that there is anything inherently wrong with Islam, only that mixing fundamentalist religious doctrine and state power is a poor combination; Christian regimes in the west have a similarly bad record.

One reason to fear a Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt is the history of the organization itself.  One of its earlier members, Sayyid Qutb, laid down the doctrine for modern day Jihad and heavily influenced Osama bin Laden and other Islamic terrorists, many of whom were members of the Muslim Brotherhood itself.  Like Al-Qaeda, the Brotherhood has the stated goal of re-establishing the Caliphate, and has a typical hateful view towards Jews, Christians, and the West.  It is hard to see how such a government could maintain a positive relationship with Israel and the Western World.

Some would argue that if the United States tried engaging such a regime, rather than ostracizing it, that they would be able to find common ground.  Unfortunately history has shown otherwise.  Despite popular perception, the United States has tried engaging such regimes, and the common result is failure.  After the Shah was overthrown by the Ayatollah in Iran, the U.S. initially made an effort to live with the new regime.  However, the theocrats in Tehran, realizing much of their legitimacy rested with fuelling hatred against the Jews and the West, stormed the U.S. embassy and cut off relations with Israel, which had been a former ally.  Other notable examples in the region include the regrettable support the Americans gave to Saddam Hussein, and futile efforts to engage Syria.  Even in the case of Cuba, the Americans initially tried to win over Castro.  It was only after Castro nationalized U.S. interests in Cuba unilaterally that the Americans imposed the embargo.

There are those who would point to the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has renounced violence and has committed itself to coming to power through political means.  Even if it were true, and it is not universally accepted, that the Brotherhood renounced violence, that does not mean they would remain peaceful if they came to power.  It is normal for such movements to discard violence when they are weak, but the vast majority of them have no qualms about using violence once they come to power.  Usually it starts out small, attacking former elites, but then escalates against new rivals, and then finally against anyone who seems to be a threat.  The P.L.O, Hamas, the Ayatollah, all of whom have one time or another claimed to renounce violence, have never shied away from violence when it has suited them.

What would happen to the Middle East in the event the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in Egypt?  Maybe it would succeed where every other movements has failed and bring democracy and economic prosperity to the Egyptians, and maintain positive relations with Israel and the West.  There are precedents where this has happened, at least initially.  The U.S. supported Nasser at first, and the Israelis believed they could work with him, until pressure from the Arab world and the Palestinians forced him to sever relations and fight them.

This would be the likely result of the Muslim Brotherhood’s accession to power.  Even if they seriously wanted to maintain good relations with Israel and the West, pressure from the Arab masses, as well as the likely continuation of economic stagnation would force the Brotherhood to turn against the “Jews and the Capitalists.”  The only question is to what degree?  Would they adopt the usual position of most countries in the region that merely pay lip service to fighting for the Palestinians and the honour of the Muslim world, or would they actively seem to undermine Israel and the U.S, like Syria, and Iran.
Most of the passive countries tacitly back Washington because they are either too weak, or dependent upon American aid.  Egypt is by far the most powerful Arab country.  It should be remembered that Egypt held Iran’s current position of causing the most trouble for the Americans and Israelis in the region for nearly thirty years until Anwar Sadat realized the horrific price it cost his nation and made peace.  His reward for saving his country from further conflict was universal scorn, and ultimately assassination by militants.  His fate has not been lost on the other despots in the region.

However, while Egypt is strong, she is also to some extent dependent upon considerable American aid.  While Washington would probably be tempted to end the aid if the Brotherhood came to power this would probably be a mistake.  This considerable aid averages between 1 and 2 billion U.S. dollars a year, and, not surprisingly, is only surpassed by the amount given to Israel.  This money would probably be the only significant bargaining chip the Americans would have with the new regime.

Unfortunately this alone does not guarantee that the Muslim Brotherhood would remain our friends.  Like Cuba after the embargo, and Iran (who had been another significant recipient of U.S. aid) after the Shah, Egypt could find other donors with deep pockets, including oil rich Iran, or possibly even the Russians or Chinese.  Either way it is possible the Egyptian populace, or at least Arab public opinion, would demand an end to U.S. aid to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from looking like another American puppet in the region.

All this points to the likelihood that a new government in Egypt would turn its back on its alliance with America, and its relatively peaceful relationship with Israel.  But once again we have to ask to what degree would the Brotherhood oppose them?  While it is reasonable to suggest that they would be relatively restrained at first, focusing on cementing their rule, once this has been achieved there is no way to tell.  It is possible they would remain content with passive lip service to the Palestinian cause and other sore points.

But is that realistic?  Is it realistic for a powerful, and proud, country like Egypt that has just thrown off the shackles of a U.S. backed dictator to retreat into isolationism?  Is it realistic for a movement that proposes re-establishing the Caliphate, ending Western influence in the region, and fighting the Jews to remain passive while the Palestinians have no homeland and there are wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?  Is it realistic for a country that has historically dominated the region to let others shape its destiny?  To all these questions there is a very probable “no.”

Most likely after a period of stabilization, the new government in Egypt would back Syria, and Iran’s goals of ridding western influence, destroying Israel, and dominating the region.  Initially Egypt would focus on supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations fighting Israel, and the U.S.  A conventional war with Israel would be unlikely (given the poor record of Egypt’s Army against the I.D.F.), though not an impossibility; many conflicts in the region have begun when one or more sides have miscalculated.  If Egypt closed the Suez Canal or the straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, it could provoke Israel into war, is it did in 1967.

The consequences of Egypt joining the rogue countries of the Middle East would re-draw the balance of power in the region.  Israel would once again be confronted by the nightmare of potentially fighting a two front war, many of the moderate regimes would find themselves isolated, and the U.S. would have to consider diverting significant forces, perhaps a carrier group, to the Eastern Mediterranean to deter Egypt.  Needless to say terrorists and other rogue nations would get a tremendous boost to their morale and probably increase their destructive efforts.

Ironically any move towards a satisfactory arrangement between the Palestinians and the Israelis would similarly be quashed.  Israel would return her focus on security, and the Arabs would demand no compromises now that the balance had shifted in their favour.

This is what is at stake.  Either Mubarak’s regime survives, along with the balance of power, or the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power and increases the likelihood of conflict and violence in the region. In an ideal situation Mubarak would slowly pave the way to legitimate democracy, or at least relative prosperity, but this is very unlikely.  Maybe his successor would prove to be more open to real reform but only time will tell.  Unfortunately the alternative is potentially much worse.  There is simply no compelling evidence, historical or modern, to suggest the Muslim Brotherhood would be democratic, peaceful, or enlightened rulers.  For the Egyptians, it is a no win situation.

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